Cotoni Coast Dairies

Some Cotoni Coast Dairies Reflections

Ever since the United States Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took control of 5800 acres of northern Santa Cruz County, conservationists have been asking themselves “what have we done?” The fateful transfer day was in 2014 when a private land trust, the Trust for Public Land, donated the property to BLM. It would be years before the negative repercussions of that handover were obvious. 7 years later BLM unveiled a draft management plan for Cotoni Coast Dairies, a document rife with errors including tables cut-and-paste from other plans from faraway places, lists of misidentified species, and proposals with little analysis and findings absent scientific rigor. How did such a bungling land management agency gain control of such a precious part of California’s coast? The story unfolds…

BLM’s Standard Bearers Support Poor Standards

As one comes to expect in our community, unctuous support for BLM’s draft plan for the property was lugubriously lauded by affiliates of profiteering recreational industries and their political hacks while conservationists carefully documented voluminous errors and omissions and suggested reasonable improvements to protect natural resources while providing access to open space. Subsequently, BLM perfunctorily changed the plan to address only the most egregious errors and, as expected, chose the ‘moderate use’ alternative, publishing an Environmental Analysis (EA), the easy, low-input, and cheap means for the agency to officially finalize approval. Shortly thereafter, conservationists filed an appeal to the Department of Interior and BLM asked for two extensions of the appeal window. During those extensions, and before the appeal was settled, BLM staff bulldozed areas of the property to prepare for one of its planned, but not yet permitted, parking lot. We don’t yet know which BLM official ordered that disgusting and undemocratic act, but we will find out. Conservationists won their appeal, but meanwhile the BLM had destroyed sensitive coastal prairie and cut trees that had long supported the federally threatened monarch butterfly. Meanwhile, it became clear that the only other parking lot location that BLM’s faulty plans had analyzed could not progress as planned because the road to the parking lot traversed private property without the consent of the owners. That was almost as surprising as the Coastal Commission’s allowance for that access road, which would have also paved a stream channel. It seems wherever one looks these days, the Coastal Commission pushes for maximizing public access even if it means careless destruction of natural resources. That matches well with BLM’s management philosophy.

No One Home and No Friends Left

Back in 2014, someone working at BLM told me that their office was ill-prepared for Santa Cruz. For years, their staff had managed land where there was no conservation constituency, where nature degrading recreational activities and other “resource” uses were unquestioned. Since BLM moved into Santa Cruz County and took control of Cotoni Coast Dairies, they have been unable to retain consistent managers: two field managers overseeing the property have departed and the newest one is rumored to be ‘remotely managing’ the property while living far away from the region. And yet, our community has long offered BLM friendship.

At first, BLM welcomed enthusiastic friendships, signing partnership agreements with the University of California at Santa Cruz and the Amah Mutsun Tribe. Now, BLM only admits to being partners with the group previously known as Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (see sidebar, from BLM’s Cotoni Coast Dairies property homepage). Why has BLM rejected its tribal and science partners in favor of the mountain biking industry? We need to go back to the beginning of the story to understand.

Swiss Dairyman and Subdivision Moguls

The Cotoni Coast Dairies got its two last names from a Swiss dairy and land investment company, which started in 1901 and ended in 1998 when the investors sold to the Trust for Public Land instead of a subdivision mogul. For 97 years, the land referred to locally as ‘Coast Dairies’ was managed by farmers and ranchers who made it clear that the public was unwelcome. Much of the rest of the County had been explored by botanists and wildlife experts whose wisdom and documentation led to so many parks purchases. But this was not the case with this huge part of the County: it had remained largely uncharted. In 1997, real estate magnate Brian Sweeney announced that he had an option to build more than a hundred luxury homes on the property. The owners were able to quote extravagant roperty value, so conservationists had to raise a lot of funding to conserve the property and thwart the threat from development. Without biological surveys, conservationists had to convince funders about the value of the ‘spectacular views’ and recreational potential instead of conservation values. That seems to me to be how the seed was sown for how people came to value the property in the years to come.

Trust for Public Land: 14 Years at Coast Dairies

After purchasing the property, for 14 years the TPL managed the property while trying to find a way out. TPL managed to give State Parks the ocean side of the property, including the beaches. State Parks opened those beaches to public access without any planning or environmental review. It took many more years to find any organization willing to own the inland portion of the property. TPL solicited proposals from various potential landowners. UC Santa Cruz made a proposal, which didn’t work out. Meanwhile, it was costing TPL a lot of money and headaches to retain the property and the funders wanted it opened for public access. As a last resort, TPL turned to the federal land management agency that had long served as property managers of the last resort: BLM…there didn’t seem to be another option. Besides, some of the illuminati of open space purchasers thought perhaps it could soon be a part of The Great Park, owned and managed by the National Park Service.

The Great Park

For a while after TPL purchased the property, the Open Space Illuminati advertised something called “The Great Park,” an expansive interconnected park system, with a National Park nucleus derived from Coast Dairies and a newly designated National Monument on the adjoining San Vicente Redwoods. For a while, it seemed like this idea had become fet a compli, but enough powerful opponents started asking questions…politics changed…and perhaps funders’ willingness waned. After some time, this particular iteration of a National Monument waned and the Great Park idea became a dim memory held only by a few.

A National Monument

As the Great Park and the San Vicente National Monument ideas waned, a new idea dawned: Cotoni Coast Dairies could become part of a National Monument! Charged up with a great deal of funding from the Weiss Family Foundation, the Open Space Illuminati parachuted in something that appeared to be popular movement: glossy brochures and websites popped up and The Monument Campaign was born. When conservationists exclaimed concern at the number of visitors that would be attracted to the property with such a designation, the Illuminati said ‘Shut up! This is the only way to make BLM accountable to protecting the property!’ They succeeded: in the last days of the Obama Administration, the president decreed that the property would become part of the California Coastal National Monument.

Post Monument Blues

Shortly after the President’s decree, the BLM dissolved the only staff positions whose work entailed guaranteeing protection under National Monument regulations. Since then, the BLM has refused to abide by its own regulations for managing National Monuments. Meanwhile, the Great Park and Monument Campaign Illuminati have likewise disappeared from the scene, their concerns for protecting the land swept away as they entered the next funding cycle’s focus in some other arena. Enter stage left the influential Outdoor Industry Association where business and profits pour from Nature commodified. Advertisements for ‘rad times’ on Santa Cruz County trails bring thousands of visitors, supporting a ‘green’ economy. Sales of super-expensive bikes skyrocket. Many conservationists are getting too old for the fight. It is easy to see what we have done, but what’s next is anyone’s guess. Best to stay apprised and keep asking questions; perhaps this is a good time for a renewed conservation movement in Santa Cruz County.

-this post originally posted at Bruce Bratton’s wonderful BrattonOnline.com blog

Teach Your Children Well

Five shovels, five rakes, and ten of us sweating and smiling as we worked to restore trails in UCSC’s Upper Campus Natural Reserve. For a few years in the mid-1990s, UCSC undergraduate volunteers joined me, Campus Reserve Steward, one Saturday a month to reverse the harm that hundreds of mountain bikes were causing. We spent the most time along 7 Springs Trail and the Interpretive Trail. Both trails were off limits to bicyclists and clearly signed; they still are. These are very sensitive ecological areas replete with wetlands, springs, and highly erosive soils. They have been set aside for teaching and research, visited by classes and sites of long-term forest research. While we worked, we frequently encountered bicyclist after bicyclist, some skidding to avoid hitting the volunteers. Our team was trained and eager to inform the bicyclists about the trails being closed and why. More than half of the bicyclists were aggressive and unfriendly, unwelcoming to such an interaction. We were yelled at, called all sorts of names, and there were occasional threats of violence, and even spitting. I was thrown to the ground and stepped on once by a particularly aggressive individual. Our work to close the trail was regularly and expertly vandalized and signs frequently defaced. This is a dominant culture of mountain biking. These instances are not outliers, the behavior far too common. I have been hearing similar stories from many people for years. Once, I told a person with his son that I would call a ranger if they jumped a gate headed into a closed, sensitive natural area. He responded, “I AM A RANGER!” And I recognized him as one of the head rangers for State Parks…and off he went, a fine example for his son.

Givers Vs. Takers

I recommend reading Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael; one of the things I recall from the book is a characterization of humans as being either “givers” or “takers.” Santa Cruz County has been fortunate to have a historic giving culture. A very large percentage of the County has been set aside as parks or is stewarded by large private landowners who take very good care of their land. There is little area for urban sprawl, but now we are facing the next biggest threat: natural areas recreation, one of the top threats to biodiversity on the planet. Leading the assault are trails advocacy groups, some of which have been at this for decades. There will apparently never be enough new mountain bike trails for the funders of these groups. These groups and others like them around the world are being funded by industry through organizations such as the Outdoor Industry Association. Mountain biking trails-building volunteers working for these advocacy groups are spending their free time expanding corporate profits while repairing a small fraction of the damage they’ve collectively caused with their thrill-seeking sport. These are what Ishmael would call ‘takers.’ Together, mountain biking (aka ‘trails’) advocacy groups and the outdoor recreation industry are pressuring every public land management agency in the Bay Area to expand mountain biking trails in an apparent bid to turn every inch of natural area into a high-speed playground, maximizing profits at the expense of the wildlife and the quiet walks once enjoyed by families with small children, bird watchers, and contemplative hikers. On this subject, someone urged me to consider Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

The Corruptors’ Rule: Keep Them Stupid

I suspect that a fraction of those building new trails at Cotoni Coast Dairies innocently think they are doing the right thing. The groups organizing these events certainly won’t educate the volunteers about the dubious nature of their work. They won’t share with them the long and expertly crafted critiques of the park’s planning process by the region’s leading biologists. They won’t tell the volunteers already riding mountain bikes on the trails that a broad coalition of conservation groups oppose using the trails before a biological baseline is collected. They won’t tell the volunteers that their sponsoring group has, without expertise, testified in contradiction to conservationists during the planning process in an apparent bid to gain points, and a sole-source trail building contract, with the BLM. The volunteers, knowingly or not, have become active participants in the commodification of nature. So, they are “takers.”

Our Chance

Conservationists (aka “givers”) point out that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Cotoni Coast Dairies to collect a biological baseline before trail use commences. With this baseline, we can better understand how trail use affects wildlife, plant communities, soils processes, and the spread of invasive species. The property has been very lightly visited by humans for more than 100 years. Because the property is designated as part of the California Coastal Monument and as part of the federal National Conservation Lands network, there are extensive policies that support and even require such a baseline…this level of policy support is absent with any other conservation land in the County. Do the trails building volunteers know that, through their work, they are supporting BLM in shirking critical land conservation responsibilities?

Snap!

I have put these arguments to volunteers of trails groups working at Cotoni Coast Dairies and have been reminded of a series of fallacious arguments that have been trotted out for decades. The most common statement is: “It’s a done deal, trails were approved and are under way, get over it!” This statement ignores the ongoing and active appeal to the planning process by a coalition of conservation groups. And, even without such an appeal, the statement overlooks the need to manage trails forever and land management agencies’ responsibility to adaptively manage trails to avoid impacts to protected natural resources and user conflicts that would favor certain user groups (such as mountain bikers).

Avoid the Trap

In a bid to trap the unwary, some of the leaders of the trails advocacy groups have suggested that their groups are ‘conservation’ groups. If you are confused, ask the leaders of these groups about what is ‘enough’ and what is ‘too much?’ For instance, when will there be ‘enough’ mountain bike trails? What specific metric would indicate too much soil erosion on a given stretch of trail? What, specifically, is too much user conflict- such as how much displacement of families with small children who fear their 3-year-olds getting hit by mountain bikes (like one person recently reported to me)? How specifically will we know when there has been too much wildlife loss due to natural areas recreation? If the trails advocacy group truly had a conservation platform, they would have answers, created through methods of carrying capacity analysis and they would be able to offer threshold limits of acceptable change (‘enough’ or ‘too much’). I have long interacted with these groups, and this is where I see evidence favoring ‘malice’ instead of Hanlon’s razor ‘stupidity.’ With this kind of experience, one might discover which groups are primarily interested in the commodification of nature, and are, thereby ‘takers.’

Past Evidence

In the 1990’s, one of these trails advocacy groups began their ugly but organized, well-funded campaigns to expand mountain biking trails in this region. I was at the table when the group negotiated the opening of the U-Con trail from UCSC to Henry Cowell. They promised volunteers to close and keep closed the myriad of unsanctioned trails bleeding tons of sediment into the San Lorenzo River; they said that they would post volunteers at trail heads to “self-enforce” closure. They did no such thing. I was also there when mountain biking representatives showed up at the first Gray Whale Advisory Committee meeting, having worked with State Parks for a year to prepare detailed plans for an extensive network of new trails through that property (now part of Wilder Ranch State Park) without any understanding of/interest in the extensive areas with sensitive ecology and erosive soils. Because of their intransigence at coming to agreement with Parks and the Committee, there is still no long term trails management plan and no plan for protecting critical sensitive species. A group consulted with me when Nisene Marks State Park General Plan was being drafted and mountain biking advocates were aggressively advocating for more mountain bike trails, in contradiction to permanent deed restrictions against such use….wasting extensive State and private resources and, once again, needlessly dividing our community. More recently, I countered a mountain biking group publicity campaign that sought to educate the public falsely about the ‘need’ for more mountain bike trails because of the purported paucity of such in the County. After correction, they walked back the campaign and it subsequently disappeared. These situations are, in my opinion, more evidence of ‘malice’ rather than ‘stupidity.’

We are Winning

Despite all of this, the ‘givers’ are winning, pushing forward protections for Nature in parks around Santa Cruz. We realize that the vast majority of us want healthy wildlife AND access to natural areas where we can recreate without fear. We reject the politics of division that those whose object is the commodification of nature so enjoy. Together, we won protections for Nisene Marks State Park. We expanded protections prohibiting mountain bikes in extensive wilderness areas of Castle Rock State Park. We created extensive Natural Preserves at Wilder Ranch State Park, thwarting miles of new mountain bike trails. We have (thus far) maintained prohibitions against mountain biking on single track trails at UCSC. A coalition of conservation groups has recently made great headway in improving the poor recreational planning at Cotoni Coast Dairies. With community support, the San Vicente Redwoods conservation coalition is enacting the most progressive recreation and conservation adaptive management regime our region has ever seen. Expanding awareness even forced one mountain biking advocacy group to change their name to seem more PC. And soon, we may have Congressional representative Jimmy Panetta instead of Anna Eshoo- a massive step forward in leadership to better manage the impacts of natural areas visitors to our communities and to wildlife. I have been fielding so many requests to help on these issues that I can’t keep up. Together, we are turning the tide: there is hope that future generations will be able to enjoy peaceful strolls and see sensitive wildlife in our natural areas, after all.

Your Time

Meanwhile, when you consider how to spend your outdoor volunteer time, focus your attention on groups that know how to help you to truly become a ‘giver’– groups like the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and the California Native Plant Society.

-this essay originally published in Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog BrattonOnline.com